Here’s another short story I’m planning to submit to The Dirtbag Diaries podcast in hopes that they will air it next year. Give it a read. Let me know what you think!! I’ll take all the constructive criticism I can get.
Mountains are, by far, my favorite place to be. Whether I’m in their valleys, navigating their slopes, traversing their foothills, or climbing their sheer faces, I feel at home.
I first experienced mountaineering on a guided trip up Mount Washington in February of 2018.
I chose to hire a guide for this adventure as I had yet to experience wintry weather in full force without the protection of a house or building or vehicle. It would also be the first time I had used crampons, an ice axe, and my brand new La Sportiva Trango mountaineering boots, which were bestowed upon me by a friend after he realized that HIS gift didn’t fit him.
I had done quite a bit of hiking in my lifetime. I was no stranger to changes in elevation, either. But, add in a covering of snow and ice, and the game changes.
Mount Washington, in particular, is a hell of a force to be reckoned with.
While I did end up summiting on that first attempt, I experienced temperatures down to around negative 20 degrees combined with wind speeds up to 70 MPH. Exposing skin to wind in those conditions is just not an option. Luckily, I was more than prepared in the clothing department.
And, yet, despite the extremity of the weather, my strongest memory of the day was the magic of wearing crampons for the first time. As an athlete, I can appreciate the ability to precisely control how my body moves. To be able to run and change directions, on a dime, on a smooth sheet of solid ice, in the alpine garden atop Mount Washington felt other-worldly.
To this day, crampons remain my favorite extension of the human body. Unsurprisingly, I picked up my very own pair just 2 weeks later.
Fast forward 9 months to November of 2018 – the next time I was able to use my new crampons. My girlfriend, Emily, wanted to experience Mount Washington’s famed weather for herself. With much excitement, we got her a set of boots and crampons and planned to head up and attempt to summit during the second week of November.
The day we picked was to be one with particularly nasty weather. The morning would start around 40 degrees, with rain and sleet all day long. The temperature was slated to drop below freezing by mid-afternoon. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.. Wind speeds in excess of 150 mph were expected by nightfall. Not ideal,
We had our work cut out for us. We had to be off that mountain by 4 PM.
At about 9 AM, we left the parking lot decked out in baselayers and fleeces, already donning our hard shell tops and bottoms thanks to the rainy morning. Nevertheless, we had smiles on our faces. The top was only 4.2 miles away!
Light chatter kept us chipper despite the wet. We covered the first 2 miles of rocky access roads with ease, switchbacking up through the barren forest until we hit snow on the ground. The trees had slowly changed from a gray, deciduous mix to an evergreen jungle. Our mountain-ready boots kept our feet dry and warm despite water and slush engulfing our toes with every step.
We didn’t see many people at all, but did keep leap-frogging with one lone hiker. He was in his early 20s and seemed fit, and nice enough based on casual gestures in passing.
Just as we were about to enter the steep section of the trail, our friend asked if he could join us on our journey to the summit. We accepted – honestly, it would have been awkward not to. We quickly got to know each other as we scrambled up to the Lion Head rock formation just above tree line.
He was studying geology at school in Connecticut and had hiked Mount Washington 7 times, 4 in the winter. He kept up with our moderate pace with ease in his lightweight hiking boots. All-told, a nice guy! I was excited to have made a new friend.
By the time we reached Lion Head, our new friend was complaining that his legs were a bit cold. Emily and I were both feeling fine, and he decided that he was OK to continue on with us the last mile to the summit.
From there, our newly formed trio was a bit slower moving. The winds picked up significantly as we trudged through a wet alpine garden. My hands had become a bit cold due to my lack of waterproof gloves, but, if I kept them moving, it didn’t bother me much.
About a half a mile from the top, I wondered if I should turn us all around. I had expected that we would already be at the summit by that time, and conditions were deteriorating rapidly. But, I put the thought behind me when my two partners confirmed that they were prepared to forge on despite their discomfort.
Over the next 30 minutes, we scrambled the final stretch of mixed slush and rock to the summit. We rounded the summit ridge post-holing every step of the last hundred yards.
At the summit, the winds were reminiscent of the whipping 70 mph ones I had felt the last time I had been up there. Not quite enough to knock you off your feet, but we surely braced ourselves while we took our summit photos. Emily took her time eating a few summit gummy worms while sitting upon the small rocky outcrop and leaning on the summit signpost.
Emily and I welcomed the 10 minute rest at the summit, despite the ridiculous conditions. As we sheltered from the wind behind the summit observation station, our buddy warned me that he was losing control and feeling in his legs. Our brief respite had sapped the remaining warmth from his body. I knew that the weather was only going to worsen from there, so I spurred our motley crew into action. Time to go.
But, it was too late. As we slid down the snowfield at the top of the mountain, it was obvious that he was not OK. Any rocky sections more technical than a smooth trail were obviously a lot for him to handle due to his deteriorating mental state. Within 30 minutes, I was conducting his every step.
Emily was still moving at a good clip, but her knee was starting to bother her due to a lingering hip injury. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but it was definitely not the best time for a resurgence. Wincing, she kept up a solid pace about 50 feet ahead of us, barely visible in the near whiteout conditions.
The severity of the situation continued to worsen as we made our way back through the alpine garden. Whenever I could, I would run down to Emily to ensure that she was still OK. With knives in her left knee and tears in her eyes, she forged on. I wished so badly to be by her side and hold her hand.
The weather was insane, but it wasn’t getting to us. With our hardshells and sufficient layers and bomb proof boots, we had no issues with the cold. Nor the winds for that matter.
Until they turned katabatic.
Walking became a serious chore. Merely standing was hard enough when the gusts came. It felt like we were stuck in a foggy wind tunnel. Literally. We could only see 10 to 20 feet, and were unable to look any direction but with the wind for our hoods to be of any use.
My newly hypothermic friend’s mental state had deteriorated significantly. With desperation in his voice, he asked me if “[he] would be OK”. A few minutes later I heard, “will I ever see my mom again?”
The raging winds blasted him from his feet 3 times. On the first occasion, he was able to get back to his feet on his own. The second time he was unable to right himself under his own power, so I ripped him from the ground and forcefully ushered him onwards.
As we approached Lion Head, both he and Emily ended up on the ground during the strongest gust I have experienced in my life. The temperature had officially dropped below freezing at this point. The situation had turned dire.
Fueled by adrenaline, I scooped them both up. I wrapped an arm around each and ran them down off trail behind the ridge to find refuge behind a rock for a brief respite and to explain the plan: do whatever you can to get to the cover of trees.
By that time, I was painfully aware of what our friend was wearing. A polyester t-shirt, a cotton t-shirt, a down Carhartt jacket, paper thin hiking pants, and high-top hiking sneakers. Nothing waterproof. The stinging in my wet fingers wasn’t even a fraction of what he was going through. He was soaked to the bone, and the winds were unrelenting.
My pep talk seemed to bring some life back to our friend. We moved with just a bit more gusto.
We breached the trees breathless. Finally out of the maelstrom, Emily and I could take a moment to breathe and actually communicate with each other. Our friend was finally able to support his own weight, but was still mentally impaired. I peeled the wet layers from his torso which revealed ghostly, white skin. I wrapped him in my fleece, after which he quickly began to rewarm and come to.
At the base, the ranger informed us that the winds were 120 mph at the summit at around the time we were approaching Lion Head. And, that it is not uncommon for wind speeds in the alpine garden to exceed those on the summit above.
Sheepishly, the Connecticut scholar thanked me, and gave me nothing more than a follow on Instagram. He did have a steak dinner waiting for him, so I can’t say that I blamed him.
I asked him if he would have turned around before the summit if he had not been with us. He claimed that he would have.
I’m not so sure.
I can never get enough of snow-blanketed mountains. The stark contrast between the dark and jagged rocky outcrops and the gentle white slopes and fields. The muted sounds of wind and water and animals that echo just a bit less far than they should. The leafless trees in the valleys and the dense green forests above them. The alpine gardens of multicolored lichen and hardy shrubs giving life to the rocky world above treeline.
I am now painfully aware that the wilderness can be a scary place. Our ill-prepared friend was lucky to make it off of that mountain. Worse, he endangered our lives: two other humans with families and lives of their own.
With the right gear and a safety-first mindset, we can mitigate risk to a large extent. But, the best preparation we can have is a reverent respect for all things wild. You never know when mother nature will try to swat you off of this beautiful Earth.